For some, architect Oscar Niemeyer—born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907—has come to embody Brazil's design legacy in its entirety. After all, Niemeyer designed landmarks, museums, office towers, furniture, and the current Brazilian capital, Brasilia, in 1960. He also had an outsize influence abroad, as one of the architects of New York's United Nations complex, alongside Le Corbusier and Harrison & Abramovitz.
Niemeyer was unique among Brazilian architects in his prominence abroad for one simple reason—his exile, explains Zesty Meyers. Meyers is a principal at New York furniture gallery R & Company, which just released Brazil Modern: The Rediscovery of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Furniture (304 pages, The Monacelli Press), written by design journalist and curator Aric Chen. Niemeyer was an avowed Communist, spending years in exile from Brazil during its period under military dictatorship. He landed in Paris in 1964 (and later spent time in Cuba and the Soviet Union), where his work gained traction outside Brazil's design circles.
But other designers—like Joaquim Tenreiro (1906-1992), Sérgio Rodrigues (1927–2014), and Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992), whose work is celebrated alongside a score of unearthed Brazilian design gems in the new book—have gone largely unheralded. (The Italian-born Bo Bardi was, however, the subject of a sweeping retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art last year). Part of this was Brazil's isolation during its time under military rule, Meyers explains, when the country simply wasn't exporting goods and participating in the kind of international trade that fueled consumers' thirst for European wares.
Meyers's hope is that the book fills this void in the available knowledge about these trailblazing designers, whose distinctive, idiosyncratic, and flat-out cool furniture—from stools and lounge chairs to side tables and dining sets—are works unlike anything else produced at the time. Case in point: Tenreiro "carved wood by hand for his pieces. He didn't have ergonomic machines," Meyers explains. "But he understood material!"
If the book produces just a fraction of Meyers's enthusiasm about the collection of unearthed Brazilian gems featured in an unfamiliar audience, it will have done its job well.
∙ Brazil Modern [The Monacelli Press]
∙ Prolific Midcentury Brazilian Architect Lina Bo Bardi is Having a Moment [Curbed]